Indonesian President Acknowledges Belief in Witchcraft

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The president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, recently stated what most Indonesians probably assumed: he believes in the existence of magic and witchcraft.

According to a news story at ReligionNews.com, “In a recently published memoir, he describes a ‘horror movie’ style encounter with black magic at his residence: ‘Suddenly, my wife screamed,’ writes Yudhoyono in the 900-page book, “Selalu Ada Pilihan” (“There is Always a Choice”). ‘There was this thick dark cloud hovering beneath the ceiling, trying to enter my bedroom. I then asked everybody to pray to seek Allah’s help. I closed the door to my room but left others wide open. The revolving clouds eventually headed out of my house.’”

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Indonesia is a largely Islamic country, and many Muslims — like many fundamentalist Christians — consider witchcraft an occult practices and therefore evil. A 2012 Pew Forum Research poll found that “Among the Southeast Asian countries surveyed, Indonesian Muslims are the most convinced that witchcraft is real (69 percent).”

Mysticism among world leaders is not unheard of; Nancy Reagan famously consulted an astrologer, who allegedly had some influence in the Reagan White House. But this revelation raises interesting issues. Like anyone else, the president of Indonesia has a right to his personal religious beliefs, but how might this affect how he rules the country?

Yudhoyono’s personal concerns over witchcraft are reflected in amendments his government made to the Indonesian Criminal Code last year, which included imprisonment of up to five years for using black magic to cause “someone’s illness, death, mental or physical suffering.”

Yudhoyono also promoted a bill stating “that a person who declares himself to have magic powers may face a maximum of five years in prison or pay a maximum of Rp 300 million (US $30,969) in fines. The same applies to those who inform, encourage or offer such magic services to others.

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Yudhoyono is not alone in his attempts to outlaw the use of magic in his country; last year Mohammed Buqais, a government official in the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain, criticized his government for not doing more to educate its citizens — and particularly its young people — about the dangers of black magic and witchcraft.

In an interview published by The Gulf Daily News, Buqais stated “I studied in school for 12 years and worked as a teacher for 15 years, but never came across any subject that addresses sorcery or witchcraft…This means the government is failing to raise awareness.”

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Concerns about witchcraft, both genuine and politically manufactured, have also appeared in American politics as well. In late 2010 a controversy erupted over comments made by Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell on the television show “Politically Incorrect”: “I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven. One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn’t know it.”

Although O’Donnell quickly distanced herself from the comments, they concerned many of her conservative supporters.

Witchcraft has been blamed for many social and personal ills around the world, including countless homicides. In 1999, more than 200 suspected witches were killed in rural Indonesia, and hundreds more were taken into police custody to be protected from angry mobs. Whether the Indonesian president’s affirmation of his belief in magic helps or hurts the situation remains to be seen.

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